05 June 2007

Who's Your Mommy?

With my wife due with our first child any day now, we’re planning – as much as is really possible – for the gear-shifting between the long period of gestation and the expected reality of having a child to care for. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once.

This seems like a good moment to reflect on the pregnancy itself, and especially on one specific aspect: societal reactions. A friend who was pregnant a couple of years ago used to tell me, somewhat amusingly, of the varying reactions of people she would see on the street in the latter stage of her pregnancy. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, but seeing for one’s self is just different. And she was right: you can just about draw a bright line through New York’s diverse community, with the white (and Jewish) folk on one side, and the Black, Hispanic, and other minorities on the other.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m talking about strangers, people you “meet” when you’re shopping or on the bus, or just walking down the street. These are fellow citizens who know nothing about us except what they see in front of them: a very pregnant woman and, presumably, her husband.

The reaction of the white strangers has tended towards the extremes. On the one hand, some of them don’t react at all – which might be fine, except that offering a very pregnant woman a seat on a crowded bus would just be polite; too polite by half, apparently. When they do react, it’s usually in a way that probes or pushes more deeply than one might want: they’ll ask if we know the baby’s gender, or they’ll offer up comments like “Oh, life as you know it will be over,” the latter usually with a little half-chuckle.

Ha-ha. Thanks.

Those among New York’s Black and Hispanic populations respond rather differently. Those strangers are, almost by definition, more polite and more enchanted. They’ll offer congratulations (not to mention a seat), they might ask if it’s the first child or when the specific due date is, and they’ll smile in a way that suggests a real understanding of the impending joy. There’s no hidden snark, no subtle or not-so-subtle suggestion that life will change and not necessarily for the better. The reaction is almost pure: babies are to be celebrated, as are the women who carry them. This was our experience on a trip to Mexico a few months ago too, when again the status of a pregnant woman was elevated well above the rest of us.


I cannot offer much in the way of explanations for all this except to say that perhaps it reflects a deep divide in perspective, a distinction between those who view childbearing and childrearing as, fundamentally, about themselves – versus it being about the impending child. It isn’t as though one group or another makes, de facto, for better parents, and there have been (as always) exceptions to the apparent rule. But it is a strange element of the experience, living in a city like New York – a strange reflection of our cultural diversity.


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